Why the key to becoming a successful athlete is using less, not more, of your brain
As expected, Wimshurst’s results show that the expert players are more successful in anticipating the direction of shots. A more interesting result, though, is that rather than using more of their brains to make the right decisions the experts are, in fact, using less.
A similar study of golfers was carried out by John Milton and colleagues at the University of Chicago in 2006. Again, a number of novices underwent fMRI scans and their results were compared with those of low-handicappers, ie, good players. Inside the scanner, the golfers were shown a number of pictures of golf scenarios and told to prepare mentally to play a shot.
When studying the brain in this way, scientists like to carve it up into imaginary cubes, called voxels. The Chicago study found that for the low-handicappers barely any voxels were lighting up, in line with Wimshurst’s findings. The novices, by contrast, had “difficulty filtering out irrelevant information” and seemed to have lights on all over the brain.
In layman’s terms, this could be called “focus”. Or, to put it another way, in preparing for a golf shot or thinking where a hockey ball will go, the novice is looking in different places, uncertain as to how to execute the task, nervous about getting it wrong, concerned about what other people might think of them and maybe even thinking about what’s on TV that night. The expert is, comparatively and literally, single-minded.
This evidence is further supported by analysis of exactly which voxels lit up during the golf study. For the novice golfers, there was considerable activity in the limbic region of the brain, while for the experts there was none. The limbic system deals with emotions; expert athletes are unemotional when plying their trade. Likewise, Wimshurst’s study is showing that in the expert hockey players the frontal lobe is active. This part of the brain is involved with higher mental functions such as choosing between options and recognising consequences. In the novice players this is hardly active at all.
Transfer this knowledge to the World Cup final between France and Italy in 2006. The French player Zinédine Zidane was playing well and would have been using little of his brain for most of the match. Suddenly, though, he had Marco Materazzi verbally taunting him and he transformed from icy cool professional to emotional novice. He headbutted Materazzi and was sent off.
Zidane may also have experienced a surge in the speed of his neurological activity. That’s according to the work of Henry Hopking, who runs the Brain Training Company. He is interested in brain waves — not flashes of inspiration, but electrical activity in the neurons of the brain. Hopking says that he can train people to regulate the pace of their brain-wave activity. Too high a frequency, he says, introduces stress and leads to underperformance. Hopking has worked with several world champions in different sports, the first being Ben Brunton, a British clay target shooter, who won the world title in 1999. Hopking helped Brunton to train his brain to around 12 brain waves per second, a necessary level of calm for his sport.
Different sports require different brain-wave activity. Sports such as football and rugby require a higher frequency of brain waves, 15-25 per second, known as low-beta waves, compared with shooting and golf, which require high alpha, at 12-15 per second.
“Within rugby and football, there are penalty moments,” Hopking adds, meaning moments in which a player needs to go from low beta to high alpha brain-wave activity. This is what footballers should be doing when they go into a penalty shoot-out, switching off from the fast pace of the game to concentrate on the specific task ahead. “Taking penalties,” Hopking says, “is exactly the kind of area where I can help.” It is also the area in which Jonny Wilkinson excels on a rugby field, as he explains below.
So shouldn’t we all be doing drills to tame our brain waves or flocking to meditation classes? Mainstream neuroscience remains unconvinced. According to Martin Edwards, of the School of Sport and Exercise Sciences at the University of Birmingham, it’s “a bit of a leap” to say that brain-wave patterns affect performance, as the relationship between sporting prowess and electrical activity in the brain is not properly understood. However, he does echo the results of the Chicago brain-scan studies: areas of the brain that process visual information are likely to be activated when a player is distracted, he says, whereas experts show greater activation in the motor regions.
It seems then that focus really is the difference between winners and losers.
Saturday, February 13, 2010
Theoretical and Clinical PerspectivesBy Simon Dein, FRCPsych, PhD | January 10, 2010
Dr Dein is senior lecturer of anthropology and medicine at University College London, School of Life and Medical Sciences, Division of Population Health. He reports no conflicts of interest concerning the subject matter of this article.
Anxiety, religion, and spirituality
Until the early 19th century, psychiatry and religion were closely connected. Religious institutions were responsible for the care of the mentally ill. A major change occurred when Charcot1 and his pupil Freud2 associated religion with hysteria and neurosis. This created a divide between religion and mental health care, which has continued until recently. Psychiatry has a long tradition of dismissing and attacking religious experience. Religion has often been seen by mental health professionals in Western societies as irrational, outdated, and dependency forming and has been viewed to result in emotional instability.3
In 1980, Albert Ellis,4 the founder of rational emotive therapy, wrote in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology that there was an irrefutable causal relationship between religion and emotional and mental illness. According to Canadian psychiatrist Wendall Watters, “Christian doctrine and liturgy have been shown to discourage the development of adult coping behaviors and the human to human relationship skills that enable people to cope in an adaptive way with the anxiety caused by stress.”5(p148) At its most extreme, all religious experience has been labeled as psychosis.6
Psychiatrists are generally less religious than their patients and, therefore, they have not valued the role of religious factors in helping patients cope with their illnesses.7 It is only in the past few years that attitudes toward religion have changed among mental health professionals. In 1994, “religious or spiritual problems” was introduced in DSM-IV as a new diagnostic category that invited professionals to respect the patient’s beliefs and rituals. Recently, there has been a burgeoning of systematic research into religion, spirituality, and mental health. A literature search before 2000 identified 724 quantitative studies, and since that time, research in this area has increased dramatically.8 The evidence suggests that, on balance, religious involvement is generally conducive to better mental health. In addition, patients with psychiatric disorders frequently use religion to cope with their distress.9,10
In recent studies, at least 50% of psychiatrists interviewed endorse the view that it is appropriate to inquire about their patients’ religious lives.11-13 That patients’ religious concerns have been taken seriously is evidenced by the fact that the American Psychiatric Association has issued practice guidelines regarding conflicts between psychiatrists’ personal religious beliefs and psychiatric practice. The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education includes in its psychiatric training requirement, didactic and clinical instruction on religion and spirituality in psychiatric care.
Religion and depression
Studies among adults reveal fairly consistent relationships between levels of religiosity and depressive disorders that are significant and inverse.8,14 Religious factors become more potent as life stress increases.15 Koenig and colleagues8 highlight the fact that before 2000, more than 100 quantitative studies examined the relationships between religion and depression. Of 93 observational studies, two-thirds found lower rates of depressive disorder with fewer depressive symptoms in persons who were more religious. In 34 studies that did not find a similar relationship, only 4 found that being religious was associated with more depression. Of 22 longitudinal studies, 15 found that greater religiousness predicted mild symptoms and faster remission at follow-up.
Smith and colleagues14 conducted a meta-analysis of 147 studies that involved nearly 100,000 subjects. The average inverse correlation between religious involvement and depression was 20.1, which increased to 0.15 in stressed populations. Religion has been found to enhance remission in patients with medical and psychiatric disease who have established depression.16,17 The vast majority of these studies have focused on Christianity; there is a lack of research on other religious groups. Some research indicates an increased prevalence of depression among Jews.18
Depression is important to treat not just because of the emotional distress but also because of the increased risk of suicide. In a systematic review that examined 68 studies, researchers looked for a relationship between religion and suicide.8 Among these, 57 studies reported fewer suicides or more negative attitudes toward suicide among the more religious. In a recent Canadian cross-sectional study, religious attendance was associated with decreased suicide attempts in the general population and in those with a mental illness, independent of the effects of social supports.19 Religious teachings may prevent suicide, but social support, comfort, and meaning derived from religious belief also are important.
More recent studies indicate that the relationship between religion and depression may be more complex than previously shown. All religious beliefs and variables are not necessarily related to better mental health. Factors such as denomination, race, sex, and types of religious coping may affect the relationship between religion or spirituality and depression.20,21 Negative religious coping (being angry with God, feeling let down), endorsing negative support from the religious community, and loss of faith correlate with higher depression scores.22 As Pargament and colleagues23(p521) state, “It is not enough to know that the individual prays, attends church, or watches religious television. Measures of religious coping should specify how the individual is making use of religion to understand and deal with stressors.”
Very few studies have specifically addressed the relationship between spirituality and depression. In some instances, spirituality (as opposed to religion) might be associated with higher rates of depression.24 On the other hand, there is a substantial negative association between spirituality and the prevalence of depressive illness, particularly in patients with cancer.25,26
Given the ubiquity of anxiety and religion, it is surprising how little research has been done with respect to the relationship between the two. The investigation of religious and spiritual issues in anxiety lags behind research on mental disorders such as depression and psychosis. Religious beliefs, practices, and coping may increase the prevalence of anxiety through the induction of guilt and fear. On the other hand, religious beliefs may provide solace to those who are fearful and anxious. Studies on anxiety and religion have yielded mixed and often contradictory results that may be attributed to a lack of standardized measures, poor sampling procedures, failure to control for threats to validity, limited assessment of anxiety, experimenter bias, and poor operationalization of religious constructs.27
Some studies have examined the relationships between religiosity and specific anxiety disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Contrary to the views of Freud,28 who saw religion as a form of universal obsessional neurosis, the empirical evidence suggests that religion is associated with higher levels of obsessional personality traits but not with higher levels of obsessional symptoms. Religion may encourage people to be scrupulous, but not to an obsessional extent.29,30 Although religion has been found to positively affect the ability to cope with trauma and may deepen one’s religious experience, others have found that religion has little or negative effect on symptoms of PTSD.31
The relationships between generalized anxiety and religious involvement appear to be complex. In a comprehensive review of the relationship between religion and generalized anxiety in 7 clinical trials and 69 observational studies, Koenig and colleagues8 found that half of these studies demonstrated lower levels of anxiety among more religious people, 17 studies reported no association, 7 reported mixed results, and 10 suggested increased anxiety among the more religious.
A person’s strong religious beliefs may facilitate coping with existential issues whereas those who hold weaker beliefs or question their beliefs may demonstrate heightened anxiety.32 These contradictory findings may be accounted for by the fact that researchers have used diverse measures of religiosity. Other studies have focused on death anxiety. Research conducted in the United States and abroad points to denominational differences as well as to differential effects of religion and spirituality and emphasizes the complex relationships between religious and cultural factors.33 Studies on anxiety and religion to date have emphasized cognitive aspects of anxiety as opposed to the physiological aspects. Future studies should include physiological parameters.
A number of pathways have been discussed in the literature through which religion/spirituality influence depression/anxiety: increased social support; less drug abuse; and the importance of positive emotions, such as altruism, gratitude, and forgiveness in the lives of those who are religious. In addition, religion promotes a positive worldview, answers some of the why questions, promotes meaning, can discourage maladaptive coping, and promotes other-directedness.
Religion and coping in schizophrenia
Research in schizophrenia and religion has predominantly examined religious delusions and hallucinations with religious content. Recently, however, religion as a coping strategy and factor in recovery has been the subject of growing interest.34 Religious delusions have been associated with poorer outcomes, poorer adherence to treatment, and a more severe course of illness.35
A number of studies suggest that religious beliefs and practices can be a central feature in the recovery process and reconstruction of a functional sense of self in psychosis.36 On the other hand, Mohr and colleagues37 found that although religion instilled hope, purpose, and meaning in the lives of some persons with psychosis, for others, it induced spiritual despair. Patients also reported that religion lessened psychotic symptoms and the risk of suicide attempts, substance use, nonadherence to treatment, and social isolation.
Given that most religions actively discourage the use of substances that adversely affect the body and mind, it is unsurprising that studies generally indicate strongly negative associations between substance abuse and religious involvement. In a review of 134 studies that examined the relationships between religious involvement and substance abuse, 90% found less substance abuse among the more religious.8 These findings are corroborated by more recent national surveys and studies in alcohol and drug use in African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Native Americans that similarly indicate negative associations between religious involvement and substance abuse.38-41
The negative effects of religious involvement
Negative psychological effects of religious involvement include excessive devotion to religious practice that can result in a family breakup. Differences in the level of religiosity between spouses can result in marital disharmony. Religion can promote rigid thinking, overdependence on laws and rules, an emphasis on guilt and sin, and disregard for personal individuality and autonomy. Excessive reliance on ritual and prayer may delay seeking psychiatric help and consequently worsen prognosis. At its most extreme, strict adherence to the ideology of a movement may precipitate suicide.
Religious issues are important in the assessment and treatment of patients, and therefore clinicians need to be open to the effect of religion on their patients’mental health. It is, however, important that clinicians do not overstep boundaries.
How then can clinicians enter into their patients’ spiritual lives? Blass42 and Lawrence and Duggal43 have emphasized the importance of teaching on spirituality in the psychiatric curriculum, with residents learning about the principles of spiritual assessment. There are a number of protocols about how to ask about spirituality, such as the HOPE questionnaire (Sidebar).44
After taking a detailed spiritual history, health professionals need to help patients clarify how their religious beliefs and practices influence the course of illness, rather than giving advice about religion. Whatever his or her religious background, the professional’s moral stance should be neutral, with no attempt to manipulate the patient’s beliefs. Clinicians must be aware of how their own religious beliefs affect the therapy process.45 Direct religious intervention, such as the use of prayer, remains controversial.46
A secular therapist who does not share the religious beliefs of the patient can still be effective as long as he is alert to the need for sensitivity to religious issues and the need to become educated about the religion’s beliefs and practices. At times, patients’ religious views may conflict with medical/psychotherapeutic treatment, and therapists must endeavor to understand the patient’s worldview and, if necessary, consult with clergy. It might be appropriate to involve members of the religious community to provide support and to facilitate rehabilitation.
Religion or spirituality may have therapeutic implications for mental health. Randomized trials indicate that religious interventions among religious patients enhance recovery from anxiety and depression.47,48 Psychoeducational groups that focus on spirituality can lead to greater understanding of problems, feelings, and spiritual aspects of life.49
A focus for future research
In addition to broadening the current research focus on the effects of Christian beliefs on mental health, there are a number of other issues that warrant empirical scrutiny:
• The relationships between anxiety/depression and specific types of religious coping
• The relationships between psychosis and normative religious experiences
• The development of novel religious therapies and assessment of their effectiveness
• The ethics of clinician involvement in religious matters
• How collaboration between clinicians and clergy can be facilitated
This article is part of a series: Introduction: Cross-Cultural Psychiatry Religion, Spirituality, and Mental Health Cultural Considerations in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Cultural and Ethnic Issues in Psychopharmacology
Impairment and Disability Study Group is discussing ways in which disability and distress can be better assessed in DSM-5. They have recommended that DSM-5 more closely follow the concepts outlines in the WHO International Family of Classifications, in which disorders and their associated disabilities are conceptually distinct and assessed separately.A little explanation might be helpful here for those not familiar with the DSM classification system. This explanation comes from Wikipedia:
So the new recommendation is to collapse all three of these axes into a single classification. Essentially, what this proposal means is that all mental illness will be correlated with medical / brain states. The big push with the DSM over the last two decades has been to make it a fully medical model, and this is the last big step.
The DSM-IV organizes each psychiatric diagnosis into five levels (axes) relating to different aspects of disorder or disability:
- Axis I: Clinical disorders, including major mental disorders, and learning disorders
- Axis II: Personality disorders and mental retardation (although developmental disorders, such as Autism, were coded on Axis II in the previous edition, these disorders are now included on Axis I)
- Axis III: Acute medical conditions and physical disorders
- Axis IV: Psychosocial and environmental factors contributing to the disorder
- Axis V: Global Assessment of Functioning or Children's Global Assessment Scale for children and teens under the age of 18
Common Axis II disorders include personality disorders: paranoid personality disorder, schizoid personality disorder, schizotypal personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder, avoidant personality disorder, dependent personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, and mental retardation.
Common Axis III disorders include brain injuries and other medical/physical disorders which may aggravate existing diseases or present symptoms similar to other disorders.
The hidden assumption is that brain chemistry causes mental illness. But this has never been proven in any real sense for most mental suffering. It is equally as likely that emotional experience, psychological trauma, and other experience rewires the brain to cause dysfunction. The reality is that it is probably a little of both.
However, we know that we can change the brain with meditation and other techniques (see here, here, here, and here, just for starters). If positive experience can change brain-wave patterns, neurotransmitters, and the physical structure of the brain, it seems obvious that negative experience can as well. For example, we know that PTSD (and chronic stress) changes the brain: see here, here, here, and here.
If experience can change the brain in both positive and negative ways, the biomedical model of organic etiology for mental illness becomes suspect at best.
However, this is the direction the American Psychiatric Association (remember, psychiatrists are medical doctors first, with some training in mental illness) has been moving for decades. By collapsing the first three axes of the diagnostic tree (which are necessarily useful in their current form) into a single category, the APA achieves its goal of imposing the biomedical model on all mental illness.
Another complication to all of this is that personality disorders (Axis II) are distinctly different than other forms of mental illness. People suffering from Axis I disorders (depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, ADHD, phobias, and - to a lesser extent - schizophrenia) know that something is wrong and they want to be better (the symptoms are egodystonic). This is not the case, however, with the Axis II personality disorders (see the citation above). A narcissistic or borderline personality does not think there is anything wrong with them but, rather, thinks it is everyone else who has the problem (personality disorders are egosyntonic).
Personality disorders tend to also show distinct differences in brain anatomy, just as Axis I disorders, but they are far more resistant to change - and few if any of them respond well to pharmaceutical interventions.
This is one change in the DSM that needs professional opposition from those of us who understand that the biomedical piece is only one part of the puzzle that is mental illness. Please follow the link at the top to leave your comments on the proposed changes.
Friday, February 12, 2010
Barbara Ehrenreich, the renowned political activist, journalist, and author of the bestselling expose Nickel and Dimed, visits the RSA to explore the tyranny of positive thinking and its role in any number of our current social and political ailments.
Is there something wrong with a society that tells us we can have what we want if only we focus hard enough, adopt a relentlessly positive outlook, and really, really hope for it? What kind of example does the plethora of self-help books and motivational speakers set in a practical world of markets, job losses and random, unpredictable events? Does our self-analysing, "think positive" therapeutic culture prevent us from approaching problems by banding together in a practical and efficient way? Can change in the world really be brought about by such an individualistic and self-directed approach?
In highlighting the distinction between thinking positively and taking positive action for change, Ehrenreich urges a move away from an inward-looking, apathetic society, and toward a more pro-active and realistic one.
Here are a video and an interview on KUOW (NPR) in Seattle.
Interview with Dr. Gabor Mate author of "In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction" recorded January 16, 2010 in Seattle.
Steve ScherDr. Gabor Mate is the staff physician at the Portland Hotel in Vancouver, BC. The hotel serves and houses people who suffer from mental illness, homelessness, drug addiction, HIV or all four. What circumstances bring people to Dr. Mate's door? Are their problems a matter of personal history or neurological development?
01/14/2010 at 9:00 a.m.
Guest(s)Gabor Mate, M.D is the staff physician at the Portland Hotel in Vancouver, BC. He is an author and regular columnist for The Vancouver Sun and The National Globe and Mail. His books include "When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress," and "Scattered Minds: A New Look at the Origins and Healing of Attention Deficit Disorder." He co–authored "Hold on to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers." His latest book is "In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction."
Dr. Gabor Mate's book
"In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts."
Three steps to genuine compassionBy Pema Chödrön
I’ve often heard the Dalai Lama say that having compassion for oneself is the basis for developing compassion for others. Chögyam Trungpa also taught this when he spoke about how to genuinely help others—how to work for the benefit of others without the interference of our own agendas. He presented this as a three-step process. Step one is maitri, a Sanskrit word meaning lovingkindness toward all beings. Here, however, as Chögyam Trungpa used the term, it means unlimited friendliness toward ourselves, with the clear implication that this leads naturally to unlimited friendliness toward others. Maitri also has the meaning of trusting oneself—trusting that we have what it takes to know ourselves thoroughly and completely without feeling hopeless, without turning against ourselves because of what we see.
Step two in the journey toward genuinely helping others is communication from the heart. To the degree that we trust ourselves, we have no need to close down on others. They can evoke strong emotions in us, but still we don’t withdraw. Based on this ability to stay open, we arrive at step three, the difficult-to-come-by fruition: the ability to put others before ourselves and help them without expecting anything in return.
When we build a house, we start by creating a stable foundation. Just so, when we wish to benefit others, we start by developing warmth or friendship for ourselves. It’s common, however, for people to have a distorted view of this friendliness and warmth. We’ll say, for instance, that we need to take care of ourselves, but how many of us really know how to do this? When clinging to security and comfort, and warding off pain, become the focus of our lives, we don’t end up feeling cared for and we certainly don’t feel motivated to extend ourselves to others. We end up feeling more threatened or irritable, more unable to relax.
I’ve known many people who have spent years exercising daily, getting massages, doing yoga, faithfully following one food or vitamin regimen after another, pursuing spiritual teachers and different styles of meditation, all in the name of taking care of themselves. Then something bad happens to them, and all those years don’t seem to have added up to the inner strength and kindness for themselves that they need in order to relate with what’s happening. And they don’t add up to being able to help other people or the environment. When taking care of ourselves is all about me, it never gets at the unshakable tenderness and confidence that we’ll need when everything falls apart. When we start to develop maitri for ourselves— unconditional acceptance of ourselves—then we’re really taking care of ourselves in a way that pays off. We feel more at home with our own bodies and minds and more at home in the world. As our kindness for ourselves grows, so does our kindness for other people.
The peace that we are looking for is not peace that crumbles as soon as there is difficulty or chaos. Whether we’re seeking inner peace or global peace or a combination of the two, the way to experience it is to build on the foundation of unconditional openness to all that arises. Peace isn’t an experience free of challenges, free of rough and smooth—it’s an experience that’s expansive enough to include all that arises without feeling threatened.
I sometimes wonder how I would respond in an emergency. I hear stories about people’s bravery emerging in crises, but I’ve also heard some painful stories from people who weren’t able to reach out to others in need because they were so afraid for themselves. We never really know which way it will go. So I ponder what would happen, for instance, if I were in a situation where there was no food but I had a bit of bread. Would I share it with the others who were starving? Would I keep it for myself? If I contemplate this question when I’m feeling the discomfort of even mild hunger, it makes the process more honest. The reality gets through to me that if I give away all my food, then the hunger I’m feeling won’t be going away. Maybe another person will feel better, but for sure physically I will feel worse.
Sometimes the Dalai Lama suggests not eating one day a week, or skipping a meal, to briefly put ourselves in the shoes of those who are starving all over the world. In practicing this kind of solidarity myself, I have found that it can bring up panic and self-protectiveness. So the question is, what do we do with our distress? Does it open our heart or close it? When we’re hungry, does our discomfort increase our empathy for hungry people and animals, or does it increase our fear of hunger and intensify our selfishness?
With contemplations like this, we can be completely truthful about where we are but also aware of where we’d like to be next year or in five years, or where we’d like to be by the time we die. Maybe today I panic and can’t give away even a crumb of my bread, but I don’t have to sink into despair. We have the opportunity to lead our lives in such a way that year by year we’ll be less afraid, less threatened, and more able to spontaneously help others without asking ourselves, “What’s in this for me?”
A fifty-year-old woman told me her story. She had been in an airplane crash at the age of twenty-five. She was in such a panic rushing to get out of the plane before it exploded that she didn’t stop to help anyone else, including, most painfully, a little boy who was tangled in his seat belt and couldn’t move. She had been a practicing Buddhist for about five years when the accident happened; it was shattering to her to see how she had reacted. She was deeply ashamed of herself, and after the crash she sank into three hard years of depression. But ultimately, instead of her remorse and regret causing her to self-destruct, these very feelings opened her heart to other people. Not only did she become committed to her spiritual path in order to grow in her ability to help others, but she also became engaged in working with people in crisis. Her seeming failure is making her a far more courageous and compassionate woman.
Right before the Buddha attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, he was tempted in every conceivable way. He was assaulted by objects of lust, objects of craving, objects of aggression, of fear, of all the variety of things that usually hook us and cause us to lose our balance. Part of his extraordinary accomplishment was that he stayed present, on the dot, without being seduced by anything that appeared. In traditional versions of the story, it’s said that no matter what appeared, whether it was demons or soldiers with weapons or alluring women, he had no reaction to it at all. I’ve always thought, however, that perhaps the Buddha did experience emotions during that long night, but recognized them as simply dynamic energy moving through. The feelings and sensations came up and passed away, came up and passed away. They didn’t set off a chain reaction. This process is often depicted in paintings as weapons transforming into flowers—warriors shooting thousands of flaming arrows at the Buddha as he sits under the Bodhi tree but the arrows becoming blossoms. That which can cause our destruction becomes a blessing in disguise when we let the energies arise and pass through us over and over again, without acting out.A question that has intrigued me for years is this: How can we start exactly where we are, with all our entanglements, and still develop unconditional acceptance of ourselves instead of guilt and depression? One of the most helpful methods I’ve found is the practice of compassionate abiding. This is a way of bringing warmth to unwanted feelings. It is a direct method for embracing our experience rather than rejecting it. So the next time you realize that you’re hooked—that you’re stuck, finding yourself tightening, spiraling into blaming, acting out, obsessing—you could experiment with this approach.
Contacting the experience of being hooked, you breathe in, allowing the feeling completely and opening to it. The in-breath can be deep and relaxed—anything that helps you to let the feeling be there, anything that helps you not push it away. Then, still abiding with the urge and edginess of feelings such as craving or aggression, as you breathe out you relax and give the feeling space. The outbreath is not a way of sending the discomfort away but a way of ventilating it, of loosening the tension around it, of becoming aware of the space in which the discomfort is occurring.
This practice helps us to develop maitri because we willingly touch parts of ourselves that we’re not proud of. We touch feelings that we think we shouldn’t be having—feelings of failure, of shame, of murderous rage; all those politically incorrect feelings like racial prejudice, disdain for people we consider ugly or inferior, sexual addiction, and phobias. We contact whatever we’re experiencing and go beyond liking or disliking by breathing in and opening. Then we breathe out and relax. We continue that for a few moments or for as long as we wish, synchronizing it with the breath. This process has a leaning-in quality. Breathing in and leaning in are very much the same. We touch the experience, feeling it in the body if that helps, and we breathe it in.
In the process of doing this, we are transmuting hard, reactive, rejecting energy into basic warmth and openness. It sounds dramatic, but really it’s very simple and direct. All we are doing is breathing in and experiencing what’s happening, then breathing out as we continue to experience what’s happening. It’s a way of working with our negativity that appreciates that the negative energy per se is not the problem. Confusion only begins when we can’t abide with the intensity of the energy and therefore spin off. Staying present with our own energy allows it to keep flowing and move on. Abiding with our own energy is the ultimate nonaggression, the ultimate maitri.
Compassionate abiding is a stand-alone practice, but it can also serve as a preliminary for doing the practice of tonglen, the practice of taking in and sending out. Tonglen is an ancient practice designed to short-circuit “all about me.” Just as with compassionate abiding, the logic of the practice is that we start by breathing in and opening to feelings that threaten the survival of our self-importance. We breathe in feelings that generally we want to get rid of. On the out-breath of tonglen, we send out all that we find pleasurable and comfortable, meaningful and desirable. We send out all the feelings we usually grasp after and cling to for dear life.
Tonglen can begin very much like compassionate abiding. We breathe in anything we find painful and we send out relief, synchronizing this with the breath. Yet the emphasis with tonglen is always on relieving the suffering of others. As we breathe in discomfort, we might think, “May I feel this completely so that I and all other beings may be free of pain.” As we breathe out relief, we might think, “May I send out this contentment completely so that all beings may feel relaxed and at home with themselves and with the world.” In other words, tonglen goes beyond compassionate abiding because it is a practice that includes the suffering of other beings and the longing that this suffering could be removed.
Tonglen develops further as your courage to experience your own unwanted feelings grows. For instance, when you realize you’re hooked, you breathe in with the understanding, even if it’s only conceptual at first, that this experience is shared by every being and that you aspire to alleviate their suffering. As you breathe out, you send relief to everyone. Still, your direct experience—the experience you’re tasting right now—is the basis for having any idea at all about what other beings go through. In this way tonglen is a heart practice, a gut-level practice, not a head practice or intellectual exercise.
It’s common for parents of young children to spontaneously put their children first. When little ones are ill, mothers and fathers often have no problem at all wishing they could take away the child’s suffering; they would gladly breathe it in and take it away if they could, and they would gladly breathe out relief.It’s suggested to start tonglen with situations like that, where it’s fairly easy. The practice becomes more challenging when you start to do it for people you don’t know, and almost impossible when you try to do it for people you don’t like. You breathe in the suffering of a panhandler on the street and aren’t sure you want to. And how willing are you to do more advanced tonglen, where you breathe in the pain of someone you despise and send them relief? From our current vantage point, this can seem too much to ask, too overwhelming or too absurd.
The reason why tonglen practice can be so difficult is that we can’t bear to feel the feelings that the street person or our nemesis bring up in us. This, of course, brings us back to compassionate abiding and making friends with ourselves. It has been precisely this process of doing tonglen, trying to stretch further and open my mind to a wider and wider range of people, that has helped me to see that without maitri I will always close down on other people when certain feelings are provoked.
The next time you have a chance, go outside and try to do tonglen for the first person you meet, breathing in their discomfort and sending out well-being and caring. If you’re in a city, just stand still for a while and pay attention to anyone who catches your eye and do tonglen for them. You can begin by contacting any aversion or attraction or even a neutral, uninterested feeling that they bring up in you, and breathe in, contacting that feeling much as you do with compassionate abiding but with the thought, “May both of us be able to feel feelings like this without it causing us to shut down to others.” As you breathe out, send happiness and contentment to them. If you encounter an animal or person who is clearly in distress, pause and breathe in with the wish that they be free of their distress and send out relief to them. With the most advanced tonglen, you breathe in with the wish that you could actually take on their distress so they could be free of it, and you breathe out with the wish that you could give them all your comfort and ease. In other words, you would literally be willing to stand in their shoes and have them stand in yours if it would help.
By trying this, we learn exactly where we are open and where we are closed. We learn quickly where we would do well to just practice abiding compassionately with our own confused feelings, before we try to work with other people, because right now our efforts would probably make a bigger mess. I know many people who want to be teachers, or feed the homeless, or start clinics, or try in some way to truly help others. Despite their generous intentions, they don’t always realize that if they plan to work closely with people they may be in for a lot of difficulty—a lot of feeling hooked. The people they hope to help will not always see them as saviors. In fact, they will probably criticize them and give them a hard time. Teachers and helpers of all kinds will be of limited use if they are doing their work to build up their own egos. Setting out to help others is a very quick way to pop the bubble of ego.
So we start by making friends with our experience and developing warmth for our good old selves. Slowly, very slowly, gently, very gently, we let the stakes get higher as we touch in on more troubling feelings. This leads to trusting that we have the strength and good-heartedness to live in this precious world, despite its land mines, with dignity and kindness. With this kind of confidence, connecting with others comes more easily, because what is there to fear when we have stayed with ourselves through thick and thin? Other people can provoke anything in us, and we don’t need to defend ourselves by striking out or shutting down. Selfless help—helping others without an agenda— is the result of having helped ourselves. We feel loving toward ourselves and therefore we feel loving toward others. Over time, all those we used to feel separate from become more and more melted into our heart.
Pema Chödrön is the resident teacher at Gampo Abbey, in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. She is the author of the bestselling books “When Things Fall Apart” and “The Places That Scare You.” This article has been excerpted from her latest book, “Taking the Leap,” and is reprinted with permission from Shambhala Publications.
Image 1: “First Breath”; acrylic paint, resin, watercolor, and ink on canvas; 20 × 22 inches ©Lowell Boyers
Image 2: “Cut”; acrylic paint, resin, watercolor, and ink on canvas; 84 × 108 inches ©Lowell BoyersImage 3: “Origin”; acrylic paint, resin, watercolor, and ink on canvas; 38 × 76 inches ©Lowell Boyers
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Thursday, February 11, 2010 18:24This article came from Discover - it's a little more in-depth:
WASHINGTON: By studying patients before and after surgery to remove a brain tumour, a team of Italian researchers has identified anatomical changes in the brain that may be linked to shifts in spiritual and religious attitudes.
The team has uncovered another clue that directly links brain activity and spirituality.
"Neuroimaging studies have linked activity within a large network in the brain that connects the frontal, parietal, and temporal cortexes with spiritual experiences, but information on the causative link between such a network and spirituality is lacking," lead study author Dr Cosimo Urgesi, from the University of Udine in Italy, was quoted as saying.
Dr. Urgesi's team scored patients on a personality train called self-transcendence (ST) before and after brain tumour surgery and combined analysis of those scores with advanced brain mapping.
They found selective damage to the left and right posterior parietal regions of the brain caused a specific increase in ST.
"Damage to posterior parietal areas induced unusually fast changes of a stable personality dimension related to transcendental self-referential awareness," Urgesi.
"Thus, dysfunctional parietal neural activity may underpin altered spiritual and religious attitudes and behaviours," Urgesi added.
Self-transcendence is thought by experts to be a measure of spiritual feeling, thinking and behaviours that reflects a decreased sense of self and an ability to identify oneself as an integral part of the universe.
The study has been published by Cell Press in the February 11 issue of the journal Neuron.
Finally, here is the abstract to the original article:
Does the human brain have a “God spot”–a particular region that regulates feelings of spirituality and connection to the universe? One year ago, DISCOVER reported on a scientific study of spiritual people that couldn’t pinpoint one location in the brain as key to controlling religious feelings. But now a new study proposes that there is a link between the physical make-up of the brain and attitudes towards religion and spirituality.
By observing brain cancer patients before and after brain surgery, researchers in Italy have found that damage to the posterior part of the brain, specifically in an area called the parietal cortex, can increase patients’ feelings of “self transcendence,” or feeling at one with the universe. The parietal cortex is the region that is is usually involved in maintaining a sense of self, for example by helping you keep track of your body parts. It has also been linked to prayer and meditation [New Scientist].
The study, led by psychologist Cosimo Urgesi of the University of Udine in Italy, surveyed 88 brain cancer patients before and after surgery to remove their tumors. They were made to fill out a questionnaire regarding their beliefs, including a section to check their measure of “self-transcendence.” People score highly for this trait if they answer “yes” to questions such as: “I often feel so connected to the people around me that I feel like there is no separation”; “I feel so connected to nature that everything feels like one single organism”; and “I got lost in the moment and detached from time”. The same people also tend to believe in miracles, extrasensory perception and other non-material phenomena [New Scientist].
The scientists found that before the surgery, patients with parietal cortex tumors reported higher levels of self-transcendence than patients with tumors in the frontal cortex. After the tumors were removed, the parietal cortex patients had even higher self-transcendence scores, while the frontal cortex patients showed no change.
The researchers say these findings, published in the journal Neuron, suggest that selective damage to the parietal cortex caused a specific increase in religiosity and spirituality. Patients who had parietal cortex tumors removed also dealt better with bad news regarding their mortality and health; while the ones with problems in the frontal cortex were more bitter about health problems. Urgesi hypothesized that naturally low activity in parietal regions in people without either brain damage or cancer could predispose them to self-transcendent feelings, and perhaps even to religions that emphasize such experiences such as Buddhism [New Scientist].
Critics point out that the study left a lot of unanswered questions, and note that directly equating spirituality to the self-transcendence scale is somewhat controversial. But other researchers see this study as an important step in understanding the religious brain. Anjan Chatterjee, a neurologist at the University of Pennsylvania said, “Sometimes people are quite skeptical about combining spirituality and religion with neuroscience,” he says. “This is one of the few things I’ve read that gives the hope that some of these questions might be tractable” [ScienceNow Daily News].
Related Content:Image: Cosimo Urgesi
80beats: God on the Brain: Researchers Probe the Neural Circuitry Behind Religious Beliefs
DISCOVER: The God Experiments showcases five researchers who study religious experiences
DISCOVER: Dalai Lama Speaks Language of Science
Cosimo Urgesi, Salvatore M. Aglioti, Miran Skrap, Franco Fabbro
* Self-transcendence is a stable personality trait measuring predisposition to spirituality
* Brain damage induces specific and fast modulations of self-transcendence
* Self-transcendence increases after damage to lt and rt inferior parietal cortex
The predisposition of human beings toward spiritual feeling, thinking, and behaviors is measured by a supposedly stable personality trait called self-transcendence. Although a few neuroimaging studies suggest that neural activation of a large fronto-parieto-temporal network may underpin a variety of spiritual experiences, information on the causative link between such a network and spirituality is lacking. Combining pre- and post-neurosurgery personality assessment with advanced brain-lesion mapping techniques, we found that selective damage to left and right inferior posterior parietal regions induced a specific increase of self-transcendence. Therefore, modifications of neural activity in temporoparietal areas may induce unusually fast modulations of a stable personality trait related to transcendental self-referential awareness. These results hint at the active, crucial role of left and right parietal systems in determining self-transcendence and cast new light on the neurobiological bases of altered spiritual and religious attitudes and behaviors in neurological and mental disorders.
Tags: Brain changes, Psychology, Spirituality, brain, neuroscience, The Spiritual Brain, Selective Cortical Lesions, Self-Transcendence, brain damage, Cosimo Urgesi, Salvatore M. Aglioti, Miran Skrap, Franco Fabbro, Neuron, frontal cortex, parietal cortex, temporal cortex, spiritual states
Thursday, February 11, 2010
First, from Wisdom Quarterly, an interview:
Next up is an excerpt from Reality Sandwich.Hungry Ghosts may be understood in terms of Buddhist cosmology or psychology: Whereas one makes them hard to believe in, the other is undeniable because it's us.
What does the book title In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts mean?DR. GABOR MATE: It's a Buddhist phrase. In Buddhist Psychology, there are a number of realms that human beings cycle through. All of us. One is the Human Realm, which is our ordinary selves. The Hell Realm is that of unbearable rage, fear, terror, you know, these emotions that are difficult to handle. The Animal Realm is our instincts and our [hate] and our passions.
Now, the Hungry Ghost Realm, the creatures in it are depicted as people with large, empty bellies, small mouths, and scrawny, thin necks. They can never get enough satisfaction. They can never fill their bellies. They're always hungry, always empty, always seeking it from the outside. That speaks to a part of us that I have, and everybody in our society has, where we want satisfaction from the outside, where we're empty, where we want to be soothed by something in the short term. But we can never feel that, or fulfill that, insatiety from outside.The addicts are in that realm all the time. Most of us are in that realm some of the time. And my point really is, is that there's no clear distinction between the identified addict and the rest of us. There's just a continuum on which we all may be found. They're on it because they suffered more than most of us.DR. MATE: Sure, you see, if you look at the brain circuits of addiction -- and that's true whether it's a shopping addiction, like mine, or an addiction to opiates like the heroin addict -- we're looking for endorphins in our brains. Endorphins are the brain's feelgood, reward, pleasure, and pain-relief chemicals. They also happen to be the love chemicals that connect us to the universe and to one another.
A visit to the Hungry Ghost Realm, circa 1969, with petas before they became horribly disfigured by their all-consuming addictions.Now, that circuitry in addicts doesn't function very well. As the circuitry of incentive and motivation, which involves the chemical dopamine, also doesn't function very well. Stimulant drugs like cocaine and crystal meth, nicotine and caffeine -- all elevate dopamine levels in the brain -- as does sexual acting out, as does extreme sports, as does workaholism, and so on.Now the issue is, Why do these circuits not work so well in some people? Because the drugs in themselves are not, surprisingly, addictive. And what I mean by that is, is that most people who try most drugs never become addicted to them. And so there has to be susceptibility there. And the susceptible people are the ones with these impaired brain circuits. And the impairment is caused by early adversity rather than by genetics...
What do you mean "early adversity"?DR. MATE: Well, the human brain, unlike any other mammal, for the most part develops under the influence of the environment. And that's because, from the evolutionary point of view, we develop these large heads, large fore brains, and to walk on two legs... Listen to more (4:20)
REAL BUDDHIST GHOST STORIES
The Stories of Ghosts (Petavatthu) is a Theravada Buddhist scripture. It is included in the Khuddaka Nikaya of the Pali Canon's Sutta Pitaka. It is composed of 51 verse narratives describing how the effects of bad actions can lead to rebirth in the unhappy world of hungry ghosts (petas). Such rebirth takes place in accordance with the doctrine of karma. It also highlights the teaching that giving alms to very moral individuals in particular and monastics in general might benefit one's relatives who have passed away.
In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts
The following is excerpted from In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction (North Atlantic Books 2010)
"I believe that to pursue the American Dream is not only futile but self-destructive because ultimately it destroys everything and everyone involved with it. By definition it must, because it nurtures everything except those things that are important: integrity, ethics, truth, our very heart and soul. Why? The reason is simple: because Life/life is about giving, not getting." -- Hubert Selby, Jr.
Requiem for a Dream
Ralph, the God-starved, pseudo-Nazi poet, said something to me in the hospital that ought to make many of us upstanding, righteous citizens squirm. I was challenging his belief in emancipation through drugs. "You talk about freedom. But how much freedom can there be when you're chasing the drug the whole day for just a few minutes of satisfaction? Where's the freedom in that?"
Ralph shrugs his shoulders. "What else am I going to do? What do you do? You get up in the morning, and somebody cooks you bacon and eggs . . ."
"Yogurt and banana," I interject. "I prepare it myself."
Ralph shakes his head impatiently. "Okay. . . yogurt and banana. Then you go to the office and you see a couple of dozen patients . . . and all your money goes to the bank at the end of that, and then you count up your shekels or your doubloons. At the end of the day, what have you done? You've collected the summation of what you think freedom is. You're looking for security, and you think that will give you freedom. You collected a hundred shekels of gold, and to you this gold has the capacity of keeping you in a fancy house or maybe you can salt away another six weeks' worth up and above what you already have in the bank.
"But what are you looking for? What have you spent your whole day searching for? That same bit of freedom or satisfaction that I want; we just get it differently. What's everybody chasing all the money for if not to get them something that will make them feel good for a while or make them feel they're free? How are they freer than I am?
"Everybody's searching for that feeling of well-being, that greater happiness. But I'd rather be a dog out in the street than do what many people go through to find their summation of freedom."
"There's a lot of truth there," I concede. "I can get caught up in all sorts of meaningless activities that leave me only temporarily satisfied, if that. Sometimes they leave me feeling worse. But I do believe there's a greater freedom than either your pursuit of the drug or my pursuit of security or success can provide."
Ralph looks at me as a benign but worldly-wise uncle would gaze upon a naive child. "And what would that freedom of pursuits be? What would be the ultimate freedom to be searching for?"
I hesitate. Can I authentically say this? "The freedom from pursuits," I say finally. "The freedom from being so needy that our whole life is spent trying to appease our desires or fill in the emptiness. I've never experienced total freedom, but I believe it's possible."
Ralph is adamant. "If it could be different, it would be. It is what it is. Let me put it to you this way: why is it that some people, through no merit whatsoever, get to have whatever they think will give them happiness? Others, through no fault of their own, are deprived."
I agree it's an unfair world in many ways.
"Then how can you or anyone else tell me that my way is wrong, theirs is right? It's just power, isn't it?"
I've often heard Ralph's worldview espoused by other drug addicts, if less eloquently. It's clear and obvious that his (and their) rationalization for addiction misses something essential. The defeatist belief that all pursuits arise from a selfish core in all humanity denies the deeper motives that also activate people: love, creativity, spiritual quest, the drive for mastery and autonomy, the impulse to make a contribution.
Although the cracks in his argument are easy to discern, perhaps it would be more worthwhile to consider what realities the drug-dependent Ralph might be articulating and what we might learn about ourselves in the dark mirror he holds up for us. Though we pretend otherwise, in our materialist culture many of us conduct ourselves as if Ralph's cynicism reflected the truth -- that it's each man for himself, that the world offers nothing other than brief, illusory satisfactions. But from his pinched and narrow perch at the edge of society, the drug addict sees who we are -- or more exactly, who we are choosing to be. He sees that we resemble him in our frantic material pursuits and our delusions and that we exceed him in our hypocrisies.
If Ralph's view is cynical, it's no more cynical than society's view of drug addicts as flawed and culpable, as people to be isolated and shunned. We flatter ourselves.
And if I'm being honest, I might ask myself to what extent my insistence on that greater freedom is really not just the sentimentality of the privileged, pseudoenlightened addict -- a way for me to rationalize my own addictions: I know I'm hooked, but I'm working on getting free, so I'm different from you. If I really knew that kind of freedom, would I need to argue for it? Would I not just manifest it in my life and way of being?
At heart, I am not that different from my patients -- and sometimes I cannot stand seeing how little psychological space, how little heavengranted grace separates me from them. There are moments when I'm revolted by my patients' disheveled appearances, their stained and decayed teeth, the look of insatiable hunger in their eyes, their demands, complaints, and neediness. Those are times when I would do well to examine myself for irresponsibility in my own life, for self-neglect -- in my case not so much physical as spiritual -- and for placing false needs above real ones.
When I am sharply judgmental of any other person, it's because I sense or see reflected in them some aspect of myself that I don't want to acknowledge. I'm speaking here not of my critique of another person's behavior in objective terms but of the self-righteous tone of personal judgment that colors my opinion. If, for example, I resent some person close to me as "controlling," it may be owing to my own inability to assert myself. Or I may react against another person because he or she has a trait that I myself have -- and dislike -- but don't wish to acknowledge: for example, a tendency to want to control others. Some mornings I vituperate about right-wing political columnists. My opinion remains more or less constant: their views are based on a highly selective reading of the facts and are rooted in a denial of reality. What does vary from day to day is the emotional charge that infuses my opinion. Some days I dismiss them with intense hostility; at other times I see their perspective as one possible way of looking at things, as an interpretation of their experience of life.
On the surface, the differences are obvious: they support wars I oppose and justify policies I dislike. I can tell myself that we're different. Moral judgments, however, are never about the obvious: they always speak to the underlying similarities between the judge and the condemned. My judgments of others are an accurate gauge of how, beneath the surface, I feel about myself. It's only the willful blindness in me that condemns others for deluding themselves; my own selfishness that excoriates others for being self-serving; my lack of authenticity that judges falsehood in others. It is the same, I believe, for all moral judgments people cast on each other and for all vehemently held communal judgments a society visits upon its members. So it is with the harsh social attitudes toward addicts, especially hard-core drug addicts.
© 2010 by Gabor Maté. Reprinted by permission of publisher.Gabor Maté, MD, is the author of the bestselling books Scattered: How Attention Deficit Disorder Originates and What You Can Do about It and When the Body Says No: Understanding the Stress-Disease Connection -- published in ten languages on five continents -- and coauthor, with Gordon Neufeld, of Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers. Former medical columnist for the Globe and Mail, where his byline continues to be seen on issues of health and parenting, Dr. Maté has had a family practice, worked as a palliative care physician, and, most recently, devoted his energies to the addicted men and women in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver.